Facebook & Privacy

As industry executives convened in Washington, D.C. last week to debate whether behavioral targeting techniques violate privacy, Facebook was prepping a new initiative that makes anxieties about serving people ads based on their surfing history appear almost quaint.

Facebook Tuesday unveiled a sweeping new program that allows marketers to conscript members to serve as brand advocates.

Under the program, members can sign up as fans of particular brands. Those brands can then send ads to members’ Facebook friends that include the fans’ name and photo.

While this scheme doesn’t necessarily implicate privacy concerns, it’s troubling for other reasons. First, people can sign up as “fans,” but that doesn’t necessarily mean they actually like the brand. People identify themselves as supporters of all sorts of things online for a variety of reasons — including simple curiosity about what perks and/or access doing so would bring.

Secondly, it’s not clear that members who become brand fans realize that they are going to be harnessed as brand advocates. Yes, consumers are walking ads for many products; when people wear a Nike T-shirt or walk down the street drinking an Evian, they’re arguably advertising for those brands. But those people certainly realize that they’re walking around with branded logos and the like. On Facebook, they may or may not appreciate that signing up as a fan means their likeness is going to be used in ads.

Another part of Faceboook’s plan, the Beacon program, is far more troubling from a privacy point of view. That initiative involves informing people’s friends of purchases they’ve made online. In other words, if one Facebook member buys a DVD of, say, season two of “The Office,” and allows that information to be shared with others, the member’s Facebook friends will be notified that one of their contacts has purchased that DVD.

Users will be able to opt out of the service, but privacy concerns remain. Simply explaining this type of offering to people who aren’t familiar with Web advertising might prove difficult, let alone explaining the opt-out procedure. What’s more, even tech-savvy users mistakenly check the wrong boxes online, inadvertently opting in instead of out and vice versa. Additionally, as GigaOm points out, even if people opt out of having their purchase information shared with other members, Facebook might still harness that information for other marketing purposes.

Apart from privacy concerns, it’s not clear that Facebook users will tolerate this degree of commercialization. It’s one thing for people to talk up a movie, book or particular store to each other. But simply spreading the fact that users have, say, purchased a book, without including whether those people liked it, or even read it, is all but meaningless.

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